by Judy Brenis
Meredith Graf, an 18-year-old artist from New Orleans, considers ADHD to be a blessing. She is grateful for the many ideas that swirl around in her mind, for her natural ability to talk to anyone, of any age, and of course, for her artistic talent. "ADHD doesn’t have to hold you back,” she says emphatically.
Diagnosed as a second grader, Graf began taking ADHD medication at the same time, and said she remembers thinking that the medication must be working because for the first time she was able to sit still in church.
"Medication doesn’t cure ADHD, but gives me a handle on it,” she says. "It’s just another tool you can use.”
Graf, who by the age of 12 was already considered a gifted artist, is extremely humble about the accolades she has already racked up, including three invitations to the White House. It was during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that Graf drew a picture of then President George Bush’s face and hands to acknowledge his help to New Orleans and sent it to the White House.
Bush not only wrote Graf a personal letter thanking her for her "thoughtfulness and creativity,” but also invited her to an African American recognition ceremony at the White House. "That time I didn’t get to meet him, but the following December I was invited to a Christmas Party at the White House where I met the President and got to shake his hand,” Graf said. "That was pretty cool.”
An invitation to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, she declined, she said with a giggle.
But what Graf really wants to talk about is her sophomore year in high school when she says her life really changed. "I will never forget it,” Graf says. "That was the year I took this really challenging history class and realized that what I’m doing is not going to get me through school. I was tired of not knowing the answer whenever the teacher called on me, so one day I sat down and told myself I was going to get an A in that class.”
Graf, who is also dyslexic, like her Dad, said she took her textbook, found a quiet place to study, read the book from beginning to end and began to figure out how she was going to get through the class. "I remember someone telling me that you retain 90 percent of what you learn if you teach it to someone else, so I began teaching others. It was amazing, and from that day on I raised my hand every day," Graf says proudly.
Graf also turned to her school’s new learning resource specialist, Kate Herndon, and requested additional time on tests. Herndon not only granted her a time extension but taught Graf how to take better notes, how to put her ideas together in a more cohesive way when writing essays and the importance of peer editing.
"People can teach you skills and tools and you can choose to use them or not,” Graf says. "I choose to use all my tools.”
Graf attends a small private school and says that small class sizes help as well. She also makes sure she is sitting in the front of the room in order to decrease distractions. "You really have to advocate for yourself,” Graf says. "ADHD is not the problem, it is the people around you that can make it difficult.”
"Honestly, I’ve never struggled in a subject once I’ve set my mind to getting an A,” Graf says, admitting, however, that it was hard for her parents to get her to sit down and study when she was younger. "I’m a pretty independent person and I have to want something to go for it. Then, once I decide to do something, I do it!”
For example, back in 8th grade, Graf, a huge animal lover, wrote a school essay on endangered species. "I have always been attracted to giving something that doesn’t have a voice, mine,” says Graf, who didn’t stop there, but contacted the U.S. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries and proposed they initiate an endangered species poster contest.
"I wanted to give other children the opportunity to learn about endangered animals and become as passionate as I am,” Graf says. "It was amazing to see that age didn’t matter. The people at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listened to me even though I was just a kid, and it definitely became a joint project.”
In fact, not only did the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put Graf’s idea into action, but having discovered that Graf was quite an accomplished artist herself, they asked Graf to create a poster they could use as an annual award for the endangered species poster contest, now an integral part of the annual national Endangered Species Day.
Graf, however, envisioned something more. So instead of just designing a poster, Graf decided to create a sculpture of a bald eagle sitting on top of a piece of American granite, with a map of the United States made out of redwood that would serve as a trophy for the winner. "Since the bald eagles were once endangered and came back, this is a success story as well,” Graf points out.
The one problem, however, was that Graf had never sculpted before. Graf contacted James Vella, a world-renowned local sculptor, and when he saw what she could do, he took her under his wing. The two worked together after school, with Vella eagerly giving of his time and talent.
Graf credits a great deal of her success to Vella, as well as artist Jim McQueen, who not only shared everything he knows about art with Graf, but became her mentor as well. "I know his morals, his life story, and I just hope that I can give of myself to someone the same way one day."
Right now the sculpture is in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans and each year the winner has their name engraved on a plaque attached to the sculpture. This spring, the eagle will be moved to and permanently displayed at the Washington D.C. Zoo on May 21, 2013 for Endangered Species Day.
"I met the first winner, a kindergartner, and you could see the excitement in his eyes,” Graf says. "It was such a special experience to know what you have done is really meaningful.”
"I am so grateful that my small voice was able to make a big impact and I’m blessed to be able to follow through on my dreams.”
When younger, Graf also painted an oil-on-canvas depiction of the Louisiana state flag with then Representative Bobby Jindal’s name, title, and the parishes he represents behind it. Rep. Jindal visited her school to accept the painting and later
Graf was recognized for her work in a resolution by the Louisiana legislature. In 2011, Jefferson Parish officials declared March 3 to be Meredith Graf Day. "That was pretty cool,” admits Graf who says that normally she doesn’t talk about her achievements, with the exception of that one.
"I honestly don’t think much about what I do,” Graf says humbly. "It all seems so easy for me. It’s what comes naturally and makes me happy.” Graf says that while working on her art, she focuses just on what she is doing in the moment, which can provide a welcome relief from the usual busyness of an ADHD mind.
Always up for a challenge, Graf, who will be graduating from high school this spring, was accepted at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where she plans to study art, of course, and writing, a subject she finds extremely difficult. "My Dad told me that life is always looking out for you, and art will come to you, but you can’t pass up this opportunity.”
Graf calls her Dad, who also has ADHD and dyslexia, her ADHD hero. "When he was younger they didn’t know what ADHD was and just thought something was wrong with him,” Graf points out. "No one understood him back then, but I have always had my Dad to understand me and what I’m going through.”
Graf’s latest pet project is to team up with ADDA, the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, to do what she can to help create greater awareness and acceptance of ADHD. "I just want to spread the word about ADHD and how it shouldn’t stop anyone from achieving their dreams. "
Judy Brenis is an ADHD coach based
in Santa Cruz, California. ADHD has touched her life in the form of her
22-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with ADHD at age five, and Judy is
passionate about helping those with ADHD create successful, happy, and healthy
lives. Reach her at www.judyadhdcoaching.com.